How do you solve a problem like Keira Knightley?

She rules in a corset - but can she convince out of period garb, asks Andrew Collins

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How do you solve a problem like Keira Knightley?
Written By
Andrew Collins
How do you solve a problem like Keira? Well, first of all, you must accept that there is a problem. One of this country’s most successful exports – albeit one who retains a touching fidelity for the British film industry – Keira Knightley has turned a permanent pout, cheekbones to die for and an ironing-board frame into a winning combination of Audrey Hepburn, Celia Johnson and Kate Winslet.

However – and here’s the problem – if the lovely Keira, still only 26, casts off the bustle and steps daintily outside of the period milieu that has helped shape her, we start to lose the ability to suspend our disbelief. And if, as was reported recently in the tabloids, “posh” Keira is learning to play the drums and guitar with her musician boyfriend, we can’t quite read this as the sensation intended.

“Keira is learning to play an instrument, and it’s not the harp!” gasped The Sun.
Well, let’s pull ourselves together. Keira is just a girl who gave up her A-levels to star in ITV’s Doctor Zhivago, to pursue the career she’d wanted since she could walk. And she’s very hard to dislike, I promise you.

I’ve been in and out of hotel rooms at press junkets to interview many a film star, but my meeting with Keira Knightley sticks in my mind. She made quite an impression – not least for the fruitiness of her language. Almost as if she felt duty-bound to undermine the cut-glass, upper-class image she’d created on screen, she effed and blinded with a scaffolder’s abandon.

“If you’re in a fortunate enough position to be doing what you want to do, you’d better be f***ing passionate about it,” she exclaimed, passionately.

As it happened, we were in Claridge’s in Mayfair, and Gordon Ramsay might well have been turning the kitchen similarly blue in his restaurant downstairs. I mentioned that I’d eaten there and she wanted to know all about the experience, having recently visited the Fat Duck and been perplexed by not being allowed to touch the red wine until a candle had warmed it to the correct temperature: “Whatever,” she said. “It’s alcohol. It’s red.”

A refreshing antidote to her screen persona, Keira, then just 22, was promoting Atonement, Joe Wright’s handsome adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Second World War-set novel. In it, she played the aristocratic Cecilia, whose torrid clinch with a servant’s son leads to tragedy. Poised and perfect, it was, I felt, Knightley’s coming of age. She went further: “It’s the first film I’ve done where I’ve actually felt any confidence whatsoever.”

After the first trilogy in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was complete – she played the have-a-go governor’s daughter Elizabeth Swann – Knightley stuck with the period pieces for her next two films, the literary romance The Edge of Love and The Duchess, which saw her once again lowered into complicated underwear as 18th-century fashion icon Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.

Although the two British hits that brought her, as a teenager, to prominence – horror yarn The Hole and Bafta-winning footballing fable Bend It like Beckham – had been contemporary, Knightley just seems to make more sense when ensconced in the past. She belongs to a more chivalrous age, when ladies were weighed down with crinoline and expected to curtsey. She described Cecilia in Atonement as “brittle” and “a bitch to everybody” but clearly relished getting inside an upper-class lady forced to get her hands dirty during wartime.

Even in 2007, she felt she had a lot to prove. “Going into Pride & Prejudice, I was very much that one with a pretty face who couldn’t really act and ‘Why didn’t you get one of those Americans to do it, because they’re way better?’ ”

Did she really think that?

“Absolutely.”

The Edge of Love and The Duchess were shot pretty much back to back in 2007, after which Keira slowed down, worried she’d become a workaholic. “My greatest fear is that I’ll wake up at 50 and will have worked a lot but won’t have lived,” she’d fretted. “The last five years have blended into one. I can’t tell you what was last year and what was the year before.”

As such, we’ve seen slightly less of her on screen recently, but not enough to qualify as an actual sabbatical. I’m looking forward to her next film, A Dangerous Method (due in early 2012), in which she’s the woman who comes between psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung on the eve of the First World War. Yes, more starchy collars and petticoats from the good old days. Why fight it? She’s Keira Knightley. Now, I wonder if the part involves any drumming.

The Duchess is on BBC2 tonight at 9pm